Last fall at work I came across a battered copy of the Beverly Hills Ninja soundtrack that had been left behind by a laid-off coworker. The movie came out in January of '97, and usually when a studio releases a film at the very beginning of the year, it's a sign that the product's no good. However, in the last few years studios have begun to realize that the three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend can be a lucrative one, hence Paramount's release of the monster movie Cloverfield this past January. It had a big opening weekend—$46 million—and then trailed off pretty quickly, with a final gross of $80 million in theaters. But perception is what rules in Hollywood, so the final verdict was "hit," not "disappointment," probably because Cloverfield cost $25 million to make instead of $100 million. I'm sure it'll make millions more on video.
Beverly Hills Ninja also came out right before Martin Luther King Day, but it made $12 million in its opening weekend and $31 million total. I've only seen parts of it on TV, and those parts didn't make me want to see the whole thing. It's the last movie Chris Farley appeared in before he died on December 18, 1997, at the age of 33 (the same age as his hero, John Belushi, and his savior, Jesus Christ), though two more were released after his death. Desperate Housewives' Nicollette Sheridan and Farley's Saturday Night Live costar Chris Rock are in it too, though Rock's never had anything nice to say about the film.
Ninja was directed by Dennis Dugan, who started out as an actor in the '70s on TV shows like The Rockford Files (1974-'80) and its short-lived spin-off, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye (1978). (Actually, the character first appeared in a 1976 TV movie, then showed up on a two-hour episode of Rockford in the spring of '78 in an attempt to get that show's fans to watch Richie Brockelman in the same time slot a few weeks later. But the series only lasted six episodes, and then it was back to Rockford for one more two-hour episode in the spring of '79.)
Dugan was also Maddie Hayes's quickie-marriage husband, Walter Bishop, for about five seconds on Moonlighting in 1988, as well as Steve Martin's jackass boss in Parenthood (1989). He also played a character named Tom Trimble in 1979's The Spaceman and King Arthur, which I think my brother and I saw on TV when we were little. Coincidentally, Tom Trimble is a friend of our dad's. Not the fictional character—a real person named Tom Trimble.
Dugan directed some episodic television in the late '80s, including one of the final episodes of Moonlighting (he also appeared in shadows in the very last episode as a TV executive telling David and Maddie why nobody watched Moonlighting anymore), then made his feature debut with Problem Child in 1990. It starred TV mainstay John Ritter and earned five times its budget despite horrible reviews. In other words, a surprise hit.
Dugan's next film was 1992's Brain Donors, an attempt at a modern-day Marx Brothers farce. John Turturro played the Groucho surrogate, and it looked like nothing else in theaters at that time, but it came and went quickly, grossing less than a million dollars. After that it was back to directing TV until Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore (1996), a low-budget comedy like Problem Child that earned almost four times what it cost and became an even bigger hit on video and cable. Dugan then directed Beverly Hills Ninja, which didn't gross that much less than Happy Gilmore—$31 million compared to Happy's $38 million—but the all-important perception was that its gross wasn't anything to cheer about.
Dugan returned to Sandler's nurturing embrace for 1999's Big Daddy, and since then he's found all of his box-office success working with the popular comedian, directing him in last year's I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and this summer's You Don't Mess With the Zohan, which opens today. Sandler also produced Dugan's The Benchwarmers (2006), which earned a respectable $59 million, whereas Chuck and Larry grossed $120 million, and Zohan will most likely be another $100 million hit for Sandler, whose loyal audience of eternal 12-year-olds loves him in comedies, if not dramas. Between Big Daddy and The Benchwarmers, Dugan floundered with 2001's Saving Silverman ($19 million) and 2003's Martin Lawrence vehicle National Security ($36 million), which was released, like Beverly Hills Ninja, in mid-January.
The Ninja soundtrack is one of many mid- to late-'90s movie soundtracks that was unfortunately influenced by the soundtracks for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, meaning that in between songs like Blondie's "One Way or Another" (easily their most overplayed song) and Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" (not a shining example of '70s kitsch) there are snippets of dialogue from the movie, such as the following exchange, which kicks off the album:
CHRIS ROCK: Ninja? You're a ninja? Get outta here! You a ninja?!
CHRIS FARLEY: (bored by the question but defensive at the same time) Yes. I am a ninja.
CHRIS ROCK: You know, I took a few karate lessons myself. I mean, I'm not as advanced as you. I'm what you might call a tangerine belt, a orange belt, you know. I'm one of them citrus colors, you know what I'm sayin'.
Doesn't exactly have the snap of "Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of ya," does it? Tarantino writes memorable dialogue, but that's not true of the majority of screenwriters, so with a soundtrack like Ninja's you're stuck with dialogue tracks titled "You're the big, fat Ninja, aren't you?" and "... Yes, I guess I did." We wanna see fatty Farley fall down, not hear him talk! The soundtrack also features Patti Rothberg's listless cover of "Kung Fu Fighting" and the Hazies' pointless retread of "Turning Japanese." On the positive side, the soundtrack includes War's "Low Rider," Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy," and Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy," so it's not a total waste, but the whole thing's only 36 minutes long, so if you paid more than $9.99 for it in '97, you got hosed.
Around the same time I discovered the Ninja soundtrack at work last October, I came across a promotional DVD containing the trailer for Kung Fu Panda, which opens today to mess with Zohan for weekend box-office dominance. The DVD came in its own plastic container, like DVDs you buy in stores, and features its own version of the film's poster, displaying the title, Jack Black's name, the Paramount and DreamWorks studio logos, the tagline "Prepare for Awesomeness," and the reminder that the movie is "in theaters June 6, 2008." All that for a trailer that lasts one minute and 11 seconds. Imagine how much money was wasted to package and distribute those 71 seconds to media outlets like the Chicago Reader! Naturally, I'm impressed. (It doesn't take much.)
Compare the posters for Ninja and Panda. In many ways Jack Black is the comedic successor to John Belushi, a distinction that Farley probably wanted more than Black ever did, but he had some of the same addictions as his hero, which helped bring about his early death. Farley's sense of humor tended toward the juvenile, but you couldn't deny his stage/screen presence on Saturday Night Live and his commitment to characters like motivational speaker Matt Foley. Some of my Farley-derived laughter was of the nervous kind when I watched him on SNL in high school, because I wasn't sure if I was about to witness the overweight actor go into cardiac arrest on live television. But that tension, shared between the actor and the viewer, helped produce some memorable performances.
I have a feeling Kung Fu Panda will do better at the box office than Beverly Hills Ninja. But will it open to bigger numbers this weekend than Dennis Dugan's newest comedy? Well, Sandler does kick people in the face in You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Maybe all of the eternal 12-year-olds will show up for Zohan this weekend if their long-suffering wives agree to take the kids off their hands at screenings of Kung Fu Panda. Sorry, ladies, but you should've known on the second date when you slept over at his apartment and saw his videotape collection that this was going to happen.